Purely economic" is how Broward Clerk of Courts Robert E. Lockwood defends his decision to use more than $1.3 million in tax money to end a racial discrimination suit by African-American employees.
He really wanted to fight on, Lockwood insists, but a trial would be too costly, and you just never know what a jury might do. So for taxpayers the settlement is just good business, Lockwood reasons. His lawyer even calls him courageous.
While all that may be true, another reality emerges from the thousands of pages of legal documents in U.S. District Court case 95-6808: For more than a year the Clerk's lawyers maneuvered to shield Lockwood and five supervisors named in the suit from being questioned under oath about the discrimination charges and settled only after U.S. District Judge Norman C. Roettger ruled against them on key deposition issues, declaring in February, "This case will proceed."
By settling when he did, Lockwood prevented his deposition from being taken.
Broward taxpayers will never know whether the 29 current and former employees could have proven their allegations -- and in interviews and court papers Lockwood and the supervisors repeatedly denied them. Still, there is enough detail in public records to suggest that answering so many explosive questions might have been more embarrassing to Lockwood than having taxpayers pay out $1.3 million to halt the suit.
Because county money is being used, the settlement must be approved by the Broward County Commission, which is scheduled to discuss the issue on Tuesday (April 14). Outraged commissioners vow to demand an accounting from Lockwood who, at age 76, has ruled the 600-employee Clerk's office for 22 years.
During that time, African-American employees charge, racism was "widespread and endemic," and Lockwood himself "individually engaged in acts of racist behavior," including telling visitors the Clerk's office was his "private plantation."
This article examines the pattern of specific incidents about which Lockwood and his supervisors would have been questioned if their depositions had gone forward. Much of the detail from the suit -- which began in August 1995 -- is revealed here for the first time.
To support a general charge that African-American employees faced "an ongoing barrage of racist insults," the suit lists both specific comments and the white employees allegedly involved. Because many of those employees were not named as defendants in the suit, New Times is not printing their names.
The suit's allegations of racist remarks include:
*When a white employee was asked to move boxes out of the probate storage room, he responded to his white supervisor, "Who the hell do you think I am, the office nigger?" Although the comment was made so it also could be heard by black supervisor Yolanda Henkerson, the white employee wasn't disciplined by his white supervisor.
*During a charity walk-a-thon sponsored by the Clerk's office, a white employee walking with other participants passed chicken bones on the ground and commented, "There must have been niggers around here." The white employee was never reprimanded or counseled for that remark.
*At a birthday party given by Lockwood for a white employee, a white supervisor announced: "If you want some food, you better get it before the niggers do." The supervisor wasn't disciplined.
*After African-American employees Beverly Smith and Rosemary Moody complained of being passed over for pay raises -- the discontent that eventually sparked the class-action lawsuit -- Lockwood, in the presence of four witnesses, called them the "two black girls."
Overall the suit charges that "Lockwood has been present when others made racist remarks in the presence of African-American employees of the Clerk's office and has done nothing to stop or correct such behavior."
Beyond racial insults, the African-American employees alleged a pattern of "racially discriminatory" practices involving promotions, pay increases, and work regulations, based in part on a statistical comparison of payroll and personnel records for blacks and whites. Not only did Lockwood do nothing to stop the practices, the suit charges, he "has himself been involved in numerous decisions resulting in the selection of Caucasians for appointed positions for which qualified African-American employees were available."
Behind the statistical analyses were human stories, like the workplace experiences of Lydia Moultry, a three-year employee in the probate division who was turned down for promotion to a more-specialized position. She waited about a year and again applied for advancement but again was rejected. At the times Moultry was rejected, promotions went to four white employees, each of whom had only about a year's experience; indeed, Moultry had trained all four of the promoted whites.
In another incident, Moultry asked her white supervisor, Mitzi O'Brien, for permission to leave work 30 minutes early to take her daughter to an orthodontist. According to the suit, O'Brien denied Moultry's request -- while that same day permitting a white employee to leave early to take her daughter to ballet class.
O'Brien was one of five supervisors named as defendants in the suit. They and Lockwood agreed to settle individual complaints against them for $150,000, all county government money. Among the incidents involving O'Brien, the suit alleges she threatened Moultry that "anyone who sues the Clerk's office will immediately be terminated" and told her, "It's people like you who bring the office down."
The suit alleges other racial harassment:
*In the probate department, African-American employees were required to punch a time clock; whites weren't.
*When Naomi Gomez, a white employee who supported the African-American employees, went on maternity leave, she was told her job would be held open six weeks. She came back earlier, but her position was given to a new hire -- who applied the very day Gomez returned. Out of work for three months, Gomez was reinstated only after the NAACP threatened to sue Lockwood.
*In a position posting for data-terminal operator, the notice included a typing requirement of 15 words a minute. After black employee Sonja Ferguson took the typing test and passed with 28 words a minute, the white supervisor said, "Sorry we just raised the requirement to 30 words per minute." Ferguson didn't get the job.
As another example of a promotions "glass ceiling," the suit details the experience of Ivan Williams, who first applied for a promotion to courtroom clerk in 1988. When a white supervisor told him the position was only temporary and he likely would be out of a job in six months, Williams withdrew his name. The promotion went to a white employee, who seven years later still held the "temporary" position.
Twice more Williams applied for promotion and was rejected in favor of whites, including an October 1993 incident when he was passed over in favor of two white females, both with less experience. One of the whites promoted had a sister who already worked as a courtroom clerk. According to the suit, the promoted white woman also had taken "a criminal plea after she was indicted on drug charges." Williams, the suit noted, "had more experience than the Caucasians and no criminal background."
Even those African-Americans who advanced also faced discrimination, the suit alleges, offering as an example June Lewis, who in the late '80s was promoted from purchasing agent to finance supervisor. Although she was promised a 20 percent pay increase, she received only 5 percent, "and I had to fight for two years to get the five," she said. Two whites promoted to supervisor about the same time received the full 20 percent.
After her promotion Lewis' white superior, one of Lockwood's eight higher-level directors, told her she wouldn't rise any higher in the Clerk's office because she didn't participate in Lockwood's political campaigns, Lewis said in an interview last week. To make her look better to the Clerk during the 1992 campaign, the director, according to the suit, "gave Lewis a $100 check instructing Lewis to reissue her own personal check.... In fact Lewis donated nothing, as the money was [the director's]." According to the suit, the director told Lewis, "It is mandatory that each of the Clerk's directors raise a minimum of $2500 for Robert Lockwood's reelection campaign."
Lewis says it made the director "look good that all her management staff gave her a campaign contribution. They would come around and tell you, well the Clerk has been in office for four years, and $25 a year is not too much to ask."
In 1996 Lockwood was reelected to his sixth four-year term. During political campaigns, the suit contends, a white supervisor "constantly reminds all blacks that they must vote for Lockwood because 'he signs your checks.' Caucasians are instructed to vote for Lockwood; however, they are not threatened with termination."
Lewis, a thirteen-year employee, left the Clerk's office three years ago after developing high blood pressure and decided to help with the lawsuit. She became a plaintiff, she said, because "I had seen too much. I was in a position to hear a lot of things and know a lot of things. It was just time."
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When the African-American employees formally filed the suit in 1995, Lockwood called it frivolous and accused them of extortion, vowing, "My office will not be shaken down, and I will defend this case to the bitter end." He continued: "In my lifetime I have never been accused of being a racist. I am extremely proud of my record of hiring and promoting females and minorities."
During more than two years of litigation, Lockwood apparently didn't want to discuss that record under oath, for his lawyers repeatedly filed motions that stalled the taking of depositions. In February, Judge Roettger, noting "very little [evidence] discovery has taken place," issued an omnibus order denying Lockwood motions to dismiss the case, to halt the deposition process, or to restrict the number of people who could observe depositions being taken.
One month after that order, Lockwood filed initial settlement papers and last week announced the full $1.3 million deal, calling it a "good business decision." Once again he insisted he had never discriminated.
That didn't surprise June Lewis, who remembers her years as a supervisor and holds Lockwood accountable for what went on. "The Clerk was good at saying 'I didn't know,' but people were saying the same things over and over again to him directly. When something comes up and it's not right and he doesn't fix it, he's as liable as the person who did it.